Game Changer? U.S. – China Deal Sets Stage for 2015 Climate Negotiations Georgetown International Environmental Law Review

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Game Changer? U.S. – China Deal Sets Stage for 2015 Climate Negotiations

By Peter Viola, GIELR Online Staff Editor

After months of talks, the United States and China have reached a landmark agreement on climate change that is a potential game changer in international negotiations to stave off global climate catastrophe. Although naysayers have begun attacking the deal in earnest, the surprise November 11 announcement of the agreement undercuts one of the main arguments of those on the right who believe that climate change is a hoax and who are dead set on delaying any action on the issue: namely, that U.S. efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions would be worthless without serious commitments from China to reduce its emissions.

“The United States and China have reached a landmark agreement on climate change that is a potential game changer…”

As one conservative commentator noted before news of the deal broke (ironically, in hindsight): “You could shut down every coal mine in Kentucky, it won’t make a dime’s worth of difference. If [President Obama] gets an agreement with China, which he won’t, but that’s the one area it would be historic.” As it turns out, pessimists can’t always predict the future. By way of their joint agreement, President Obama and President Xi Jinping have unequivocally signaled that transitioning away from fossil fuels to clean energy need not be a zero-sum game between rivals, but can and should serve as the basis for international progress.

The Heavyweights

The United States remains the world’s largest emitter of heat-trapping greenhouse gases on a per capita basis and, until 2006, was the largest emitter on a standalone basis. China, however, has surged past the United States to become the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases:

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Source: The New York Times, “Climate Goals Pledged by China and the U.S.,” Nov. 12, 2014

The economic recession and the switch to natural gas have led to a recent dip in U.S. emissions, although signs point to a returning upward trend now underway. Meanwhile, China’s explosive growth and, in particular, the air pollution that comes with it has exacerbated the country’s internal environmental woes and put pressure on its government to adjust course. Together, the United States and China account for roughly 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions. As Secretary of State John Kerry declared in his op-ed following the announcement, “We need to solve this problem together because neither one of us can solve it alone.”

The Deal

Under the terms of the agreement reached in Beijing, the United States “intends” to achieve an economy-wide target of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025 and to make “best efforts” to reduce emissions by 28%. China “intends” to achieve the peaking of CO2 emissions “around” 2030 and to make “best efforts to peak early,” and intends to increase the share of non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption to around 20% by 2030. These commitments may be framed in the tentative language of international agreements, but in the context of international negotiations, their timing and specificity are striking.

In the near term, the announcement is a major shot in the arm to the next stage of international climate negotiations. Instead of predictions that the next conference of the parties to the United Nations framework agreement on climate change would be mired in uncertainty, the talks in Lima, Peru next month will resume on a much stronger note. The U.S.-China deal may serve to diminish traditional animosities among nations tied in part to past unwillingness of the United States and China, the world’s two biggest emitters, to adopt more stringent measures to control their pollution. The deal is also a welcome injection of leadership into the negotiations in advance of the major UN climate conference to be held in Paris, France in 2015.

The Ends of the Bargain

China has not agreed to set an actual emissions reduction target; it has only pledged to achieve a “peaking” of its emissions “around” 2030. Essentially, China has pledged to slow the relentless upward trajectory of its emissions rate. Nevertheless, China’s commitment is the first of its kind, and it is likely to spur a great deal of clean energy investment and deployment. The Obama Administration claims that the agreement will “require China to deploy an additional 800-1,000 gigawatts of nuclear, wind, solar and other zero emission generation capacity by 2030 – more than all the coal-fired power plants that exist in China today and close to the total current electricity generation capacity in the United States.”

Moreover, China just announced today that it will cap its coal use by 2020 in order to meet its commitment under the new agreement. This announcement is a game changer in its own right and “utterly refutes” the recent claim by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY) that the deal “requires the Chinese to do nothing at all for 16 years.” On the contrary, placing a cap on coal use is arguably the single most significant step China has taken to curb its emissions to date. It is unlikely that the Chinese government would pledge, on the world stage, to “make best efforts to peak early” if it were not prepared to back up that pledge with action.

All this leaves the ball in the United States’ court. Its 26% emissions reduction target is likely only achievable through both the Obama Administration’s existing regulations on vehicle emissions (the transportation sector accounts for roughly 30% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions), as well as through the more recent and highly contentious regulations on pollution from existing power plants under Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act (the power sector accounts for nearly 40% of U.S. emissions). Therefore, whether the next U.S. administration upholds or rolls back these efforts will likely determine the fate of what may be the last best chance to reach a global climate deal before it is too late. The stakes for the 2016 presidential election could not be higher – for the United States, or for the world.

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